Warning: The following review contains major spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home
The first sign of the trouble, and of delight, appears pretty early on in the film. After J Jonah Jameson reveals Spider-Man’s identity to the world, Peter, Aunt May, and a number of his friends are hauled in for questioning on their alleged involvement in the attack on London by the government. For their legal counsel they hire none other than Matthew Murdock, Daredevil himself. Wow, he’s in this?! He appeared on screen and I smiled from ear to ear. But then, I remembered how season one of “Daredevil” alone was better than almost every film that Marvel Studios has ever made, and the smile slid off my face. That momentary rush of nostalgia passed, and revealed itself to be devoid of any real narrative drama. Empty moments like these are not only common in this film, but actually comprise its main appeal. Although it contains the heart and humor we have come to expect from the web slinger, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” works far better as a nostalgia trip than as a film.
The plot follows Tom Holland’s Peter Parker as he struggles with the consequences of his identity being revealed to the world while trying to get into college and maintain a healthy relationship with his girlfriend MJ. After his identity as Spider-Man begins to hurt those that he loves, he asks Doctor Strange to cast a spell to make the entire world forget that he is Spider-Man. But, when Strange’s spell goes horribly wrong, Peter Parker must face off dangerous foes from other universes. Why is trying to make the entire world forget that he is Spider-Man Peter Parker’s first move? Why does Doctor Strange agree to do this for him? Because Sony needs to sell movie tickets, and nostalgia is an assured way to do that. As character decisions these are completely nonsensical, and these choices are completely inconsequential in Peter’s arc in the film, so their only purpose is to let loose a bunch of fan favorite characters from previous Spider-Man movies.
More than perhaps any Marvel movie before it, it exquisitely captures the feeling of a child crashing their action figures together. The film gleefully re-introduces almost every major villain from the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield films. The return of Alfred Molina as Doc Oc and William Dafoe as the Goblin are downright triumphant. Dafoe in particular gives the best performance in the movie, boldly reclaiming his rightful place as Spider-Man’s greatest cinematic antagonist. The inclusion of the Lizard, Electro, and the Sandman are much more bizarre however, as it’s unclear who, if anyone, is nostalgic for those characters. And then, in the third act, Maguire and Garfield themselves return. While both are good in the film, Garfield is shockingly good. The short and simple redemption arc he undergoes is legitimately the best character arc in the film, and his performance here is better than in either of the Spider-Man movies that he starred in. He’s so charming in fact, that he actually overshadows Holland and Maguire.
It’s evident that, if nothing else, this is a film that understands the character of Peter Parker. It succinctly captures the air of downtrodden teenager struggling with everyday problems in the first act, and while his initial decisions are incomprehensible because his characterization is being sacrificed in the name of plot convenience, his decisions later in the film are much more in line with what audiences love about the character. His running plan throughout the film is not to defeat the villains, but to cure them so that they can have a chance to build better lives when they return to their own universes. This is the kind of compassionate and empathetic course of action that Peter Parker would take, and Holland sells it. Even though his character arc is another tired rehash of the “with great power comes great responsibility” theme that has been done to death and is executed worse here than ever before, Holland reminds us why he is the best Peter Parker we’ve ever had.
The fundamental issue that this film encounters while cramming in characters from the previous onscreen iterations of the Spider-Man: It throws the bland, indistinct nature of “No Way Home” into even starker relief. When Doc Oc arrives on the bridge to fight Spider-Man you get an immediate hit of nostalgia. Then an uninspired, lifeless action sequence starts where a CGI Doctor Octopus throws CGI cars at a CGI Spider-Man, and you remember how engaging and imaginative the action in the Sam Rami movies were and mentally compare them to what you’re sitting through now. This is truly the film where Jon Watts cemented his status as the most boring filmmaker ever to direct a Spider-Man movie. Aside from a few interesting gimmicks near the beginning of the film that seem to parody indie cinema, the direction and cinematography is utterly drab and nondescript. Because at the end of the day, humor, heart, and some engaging performances can’t obscure the reality that the greatest trick that “No Way Home” has up its sleeve is reminding you of other, better movies.